Three years ago, when Ang Lee stood in front of an audience at the New York Film Festival to introduce the world-premiere showing of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” the first words out of his mouth were “I’m not crazy.” He said it with a grin, but it struck me as an odd joke. Whoever said Ang Lee was crazy? He’s an A-list director who makes humane, adventurous, meticulously crafted films that, at their best (“Brokeback Mountain”), are works of art. The movie he was about to show us was a saga of Iraq War soldiers, in battle and at home, made with a revolutionary leap forward in image technology (it was shot in 3D 4K at 120 frames per second). How crazy could that be?
By the time “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” was over, though, many thought that Lee had made a serious misfire, and the “crazy” comment came into focus; maybe that’s what Lee was hearing from studio executives. The movie had gone over like a wet firecracker, and the negative reaction was all about the brave new technology. The high frame rate, with more information packed into each image than we get in an ordinary movie, didn’t produce a freshly seductive and hypnotic experience — it produced an image that many likened to the soulless clarity of HDTV, a kind of high crystallization of the aesthetic of digital video. Most viewers didn’t see the point.
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I, however, liked “Billy Lynn” a great deal, and I totally saw the point. The images, and the drama, had a hyperreality that wasn’t so much seductive as perceptual. Lee, as I wrote at the time, “turns the movie screen into a diorama with no glass pane in front of it, one that you feel like you’ve actually entered.” In “Billy Lynn,” the presence of the actors was so palpable that they seemed to be standing right in front of you. To me, this was bold, this was head-turning — and it was also, potentially, a kind of first-Wright-brothers-flight version of a new way of making (and seeing) movies. But I was an outlier on that. By the time the film was released, in 1,175 theaters, only two of which were equipped to show it in the high-frame-rate format, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” had gone down as an expensive dud. Officially, at least, Lee’s grand experiment fell on its face.
Except that he didn’t think so.
At the time, I said that Lee, instead of hanging high-frame-rate technology on an Iraq War drama, “could (and probably should) have taken an easier route. He would have done well to showcase the new technology through catchy fantasy material, the way James Cameron did with ‘Avatar.'” That, as it turns out, is what he’s tried to do with “Gemini Man.” But Lee now has his second bomb in a row.
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, “Gemini Man” is a lumbering sci-fi action thriller that stars Will Smith, as a veteran assassin, acting opposite a glum young digital clone of himself. The project had been kicking around Hollywood for 20 years, but in his Variety review Peter Debruge rightly observed that “judging by the finished product, it was the script that never lived up to the promise of its premise…an awful lot of effort has gone into making an awfully lazy action movie.” With a production budget of $138 million, “Gemini Man” took in just $20 million over the weekend. Unless it does miraculously well in the international marketplace, it’s going to go down as a serious big-studio debacle.
But if you’re wondering why a filmmaker as good as Ang Lee couldn’t, in this case, see the forest for the schlock, the answer may be that “Gemini Man,” which was shot at 120 frames per second, indicates that he’s become an apostle of technology first and a filmmaker second. He’s been to the mountaintop and has seen the light of high frame rate. He wanted a big dazzling action movie to hang his new world on, and he found one.
Going on about his obsession, Lee speaks in the hallowed tones of a true believer. He says things like (to Indiewire), “Digital doesn’t want to be film, it wants to be something else. I think we need to get past that and discover what it is,” and (to polygon.com), “Once you get used to it, it’s not high frame rate. What you used to know becomes kind of a low frame rate. The eyes change. It’s really hard for you. For years I was gradually changing.”
As the rare viewer who admired “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” I’d be the last to mock Lee for his messianic digital fervor. The motion-picture medium has always needed, and always will need, technological artist-explorers. But what strikes me about Lee’s current moment, especially after you watch “Gemini Man” (which really is a third-rate movie), is that he’s now in danger of tumbling down a rabbit hole of techno fetishism.
This may be a necessary syndrome of cinema, but it’s also a virus that can consume the humanism of good filmmakers. I think we first saw this with George Lucas, whose first two “Stars Wars” films, made in 1977 and 1980, are far and away the best two (you can argue, and I would, that they’re still the only two that stand as unambiguously exciting movies). The blinding nature of Lucas’s fixation on technology first probably reared its head in the race through the redwood trees in “Return of the Jedi,” a sequence that wanted far too much to be an eye-popping stand-alone video game. By the time, 20 years later, that he was ready to make his prequels, they had become digital magic-show product reels hung on the thin wire of stories that took more energy than they gave.
The second major casualty in all this was James Cameron. I’m not about to judge “Avatar” sequels we haven’t seen yet (and, like most people, I was enthralled by the glowing wizardry of the first “Avatar,” though less so by its functional storyline). But it’s notable that Cameron, after having made “Titanic,” one of the grandest and most emotionally transporting of all modern screen epics, decided, in the wake of its unparalleled success (he was 43 at the time), to basically devote the rest of his life to making “Avatar” films. This strikes me as an artistic choice that’s dismayingly true to the reigning big-screen ideology of our time — wow us, floor us, bedazzle us, theme park us to death, and who cares, really, about all that boring human-interaction stuff? Wake up to the religion of your eyeballs! Strap on those 3D headsets and be born again.
Ang Lee directing “Gemini Man” and deluding himself into thinking that it’s a good movie strikes me as another example of this. Especially given that the high-frame-rate images, which I do think worked startlingly in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” work pretty badly here. The same you-are-there immediacy is certainly in effect; there are moments when you feel like you’re in the room with Will Smith. But in the action and suspense scenes that are at the film’s core, the effect isn’t more “real” — it’s more fake. I felt like I was seeing video footage of an on-set visit shot for “Access Hollywood.” I was that much more conscious of the fight-scene choreography, of the fact that an exploding van that comes bounding toward the audience was a well-timed violent stunt. Why would the high frame rate work so differently here than it did in “Billy Lynn,” where the Iraq War combat sequences were a revelation? For a telling reason: The things we’re seeing in “Gemini Man” — over-the-top chase scenes, Will Smith fighting himself — are so fake that they feel fake. The upshot of greater “reality” is to expose greater unreality.
But even Lee admits he’s still experimenting, and I’m not about to write off the high-frame-rate dream. Watching “Gemini Man,” it struck me that if the technology could be put to the service of something like an extremely gritty and streetwise “Bourne” film, it could, in fact, get us to experience a thriller in a new way. For right now, though, I’m wondering whether Ang Lee’s obsession, which seems fixated on the future, isn’t, in fact, overly beholden to the past. He says that digital wants to be digital, not film. But maybe that’s the POV of someone who grew up with film. Maybe digital doesn’t want to be as different from film as Lee thinks. He’s had two tries at this technology, and as far as the industry is concerned, he’d had two strikes (though “Billy Lynn,” in my view, got a bum rap). He’s onto something, but he can’t just slap the technology onto his latest project. The next time out, he’s got to figure out a way to make high-frame-rate cinema look more cathartic than crazy.